French Muslim leaders confront ‘elephant in the room’ on visit here

AJC seeks to expose civic leaders to the different sides of Israel.

December 1, 2016 00:33
2 minute read.
STANDING IN FRONT of the Knesset yesterday are (from left) Simone Rodan Benzaquen, Sheherazade Zerou

STANDING IN FRONT of the Knesset yesterday are (from left) Simone Rodan Benzaquen, Sheherazade Zerouala, Amine El Khatmi, Nadia Touiz, Rabha Boussetta, Siham Sahed and Nadia Lakehal. (photo credit: COURTESY A/C)

The American Jewish Committee brought a delegation of French Muslim civic leaders to Israel this week, with the aim of enabling them to gain a deeper understanding of the country. The visit was organized by the AJC’s Project Interchange and included briefings, tours and site visits, as well as discussions with Palestinian, Jewish and Arab-Israeli leaders.

The AJC brings hundreds of non-Jewish opinion leaders and policy makers from dozens of countries to Israel every year, for weeklong seminars of this kind to learn about Israel.

The organization aims to expose participants to Israeli society and to enable connections and collaborations with their Israeli counterparts.

“Most of the group had never been to Israel and there are often, to some extent, preconceived ideas mostly portrayed through the press, about Israel,” Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, director of AJC Europe and AJC Paris, said on Wednesday, a day before the visit was due to end.

“People see things in black and white from far away and now they see there are many zones of gray and the situation is very complex,” she added, noting that the visit allows them a glimpse into the varied and often self-critical opinions in Israel’s vibrant society.

“We have a problem of dialogue between communities in France, as well as antisemitism,” Rodan-Benzaquen said, adding that it is important to acknowledge “the elephant in the room” – Israel. “Israel is rarely discussed and I strongly believe we have to not only discuss it but also show the complexity of what is going on here to have more dialogue,” she told the The Jerusalem Post.

“Undoubtedly, my view of things has changed with regard to the Israeli and the Palestinian side,” said Sheherazade Zerouala, a lawyer and teaching fellow at Pantheon Assas University. The situation, she added, often has “nothing to do with what we see on television or what we read in the press. I was very apprehensive before coming. When I arrived, my fears faded.”

Zerouala is the president of the Committee for Peace of Secular Republicans. She said it is “urgent to testify of all that I have seen and heard once back in Paris, especially in the framework of the nonprofit organization I have the honor to preside.”

Amine El Khatmi, deputy mayor of Avignon, said: “The situation I find here is much more complex than can ever be imagined... The links between Israelis and Palestinians, between Jews and Muslims, irrigate, cross and traverse all parts of society.”

He pointed to encounters the delegation had in universities and hospitals, as well as in a visit to a school for migrants and asylum seekers.

“In short, this trip to Israel is a huge surprise,” he said. “It will allow me, back in France, to be able to challenge and disassemble with even more force and relevance the ideas received and the caricatures conveyed about your country.”

Since the establishment of Project Interchange in 1982, the AJC has brought more than 6,000 leaders from over 95 countries to Israel.

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